Updated: Jul 12, 2022
'Tis the season to be berry. And with those berries, let there be epiphanies.
What is more universally irresistible than a ripe strawberry, raspberry, or cherry?
Has any candy made by man ever surpassed their juicy bite-sized sweet/tart perfection? Berries are so explicitly sensual that Americans felt obliged to replace the original expression "the berries and the bees" with "the birds and the bees."
As a child, I had berry dreams. As a man, I have searched out their sweetness, foraging the underbrush (for berries) or climbing the highest branches (for cherries). There is more to such fruit than meets the palate. Their fragrance alone is felicity, and from one berry may even arise an epiphany.
Sublimating the simple
My first berry epiphany came with my initiation to French culinary sophistication. Never before had I seen such an elaborate fashion show of berries: coulis, confitures, nuages, mousses, tartes, gâteaux, salades, sorbets, on and on. Like most who discover France, coming from a culturally impoverished land of unprecedented wealth, I was enraptured by the irresistible desserts, but also by entrées where the sweet was more creatively matched with other flavors. What the French do with berries is but a subset of their elaboration on all edibles. With art and effort, already beautiful berries are reborn into a broader field of creative expression. Culinary art is to raw ingredients what a garden is to wild nature. Why should we bother to nurture gardens when nature is already perfect? Aside from its function to provide us food, the garden is a creative endeavor serving to honor natural beauty. Whilst the wild is boundlessly beautiful, the garden provides a point of focus and a place to interact more intimately with nature.
So it is with the dishes a chef lovingly devises. Two wild asparagus tips that had joyfully swayed in the wind now blend into a symphony of savors. Humbly buried beetroots reveal themselves, with berries together joined, as refined objects of adoration on a porcelain alter.
Stripping down to the sublime
Refinement is a never-ending quest, and may ultimately prove asymptotic. Beyond a certain point, our sense organs are no longer able to make finer distinctions. Whether this is true or not, we can observe in the history of Western aesthetics a reoccurring back and forth movement from exuberance to restraint, from flamboyance to reserve, from the burgeoning to the bare, from sophistication to simplicity.
Another very berry epiphany was born of this. I was off the beaten path, stumbling into an unpretentious sushi diner in Kyoto. Too small for tourists in mass, just a few local regulars were present to witness my marveling. The holy grail was not where I expected it. It was not in the sushi, as fresh as could be, nor in the small bowl of savory broth, but a still small voice that rose out of two humble berries. I had thought the meal to be over, until the chef presented me with a complimentary dessert consisting two strawberries on a tiny saucer. I sat still, seized by surprise and delight, then ate one after the other, as if for the very first time. The context meant everything. I had left behind the bounty of berries that France, without fail, delivered each early summer. France has long been the world's largest supplier of strawberries (until Spain took to intensive greenhouse production). But Japan is an altogether different world, where fruits are rare and precious.
Two strawberries on a plate would have been a trifle in France, but in Japan, they might as well have been truffles.
In this context, I thought that I had never before tasted strawberries that delicious.
In the afterglow of this experience, I wrote:
When your life is stripped of all trimmings,
You may encounter the bareness of being,
And in that moment find bliss in two ripe berries,
Splendid simplicity without sugar and cream.
Once we have experienced refinement to the limit, do we not feel a call for contrast? A beckoning towards the bareness of our being as the only limitless source of bliss? Remember how H.D. Thoreau went to the woods, wanting "...to front only the quintessence of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach..."
So it was for me, after having experienced the finest in France, that I became drawn to a more interiorized experience of life that required fewer and fewer "things". My seemingly contradictory quest was to drastically reduce my consumption, all while feeling the joy of abundance. How is such a goal attainable? Read on.
From simple to subtle
Several years after the Japan episode, I found myself in Bretagne, the strawberry heartland of France. There is even a Strawberry Heritage Museum in Plougastel, the once capital of French strawberry production. My epiphany occurred in Aubray on a market day in May. It was the peak of strawberry season, and there was a bounty of berries beyond anything I ever witnessed. After a life of normal strawberry consumption, I discovered that strawberries come in at least 21 varieties, many with endearing and rhyming French names: Gariguette, Charlotte, Ciflorette, and Cigoulette. The strawberries at the market were from local farms, and the star varietals in May were Charlottes and Cerafines, as shown below. Examine the forms on the left (Charlottes) and the right (Cerafines), and you will notice they are not the same. The flavors differ to the same degree, and no doubt the fragrance as well (but that distinction was beyond my olfactive capabilities).
How could I have lived my life up to this point ignoring the intrinsic diversity of the strawberry? The sad truth is that we've all grown up in a world that cares little for biodiversity. A form of mass insanity has led us to blindly pursue wealth creation at the expense of the greatest wealth of all beneath our feet. Is not a single berry, in all of its perfection, worth more than a billion dollars? An extended stay on Mars would help prove my point....at least to some. Ultimately the value we attribute to anything speaks of how we see ourselves. Those who are motivated by power and privilege will see no value in anything that might be considered a common good.
Only those who know that brokers and barbers, Bolivians and Belgians, bees and berries, are all being together in this very moment, can smell the fragrance of felicity.
How then can we reduce our consumption, for the sake of preserving biodiversity, and continue to experience the joy of abundance? A simple strawberry can show us the way. First, we must recapture and fully appreciate the exquisite qualities of fruit grown locally in organically-rich soil. We need to educate our tastes and heighten our sensitivities, but no schoolmaster is required. Indeed, there is so much pleasure along this path that it is a wonder so many ignore it.
Next, we must realize how we can extract so much more from less. A single well-grown strawberry will provide many times more nutrients than a botoxed berry. It will be far more fragrant and flavorful. Our heightened attention to the sublime simplicity of a perfect berry will make each bite all the more nourishing. Even so, it's not just about the bite. Imagine nourishing your soul by contemplating the berry's exquisite form and color, by delighting in its fragrance of felicity.
Make the berry to be like your beloved.
If people can be so mesmerized by each new iPhone release, can they also get excited about progressively recapturing the lost flavors and fragrance of the earth's fruits?
The fragrances have all but vanished. Have you noticed or have you already forgotten? Remember how the fragrance of fruit is a promise of pleasure on the palate? The fragrance is the most subtle yet sure signal of the fruit's perfection. Our sense of smell confers the privilege to partake in that perfection.
The Latin name for strawberries is Fragaria Vesca, reminding us that their most remarkable attribute is indeed fragrance. And is not theirs so perfectly suited to be called the fragrance of felicity?
I would like to smell the new world that is silently and steadily sprouting from the forest floor, amidst the roaring chainsaws of destruction. I would like to imagine the fragrance of a future felicity that is possible in this world, once we recapture the natural perfection we have lost. It is not a world entirely without pain, and certainly not without death and decay. It is a world where life is vivid and full, where the fragrance of felicity is shared by the young and the old.
It is as simple and sublime as a bushel of berries.
This post is an excerpt from the book EXQUISITE: Facets of my France
* the displayed culinary dishes are those of Chef Chantel Darnall, Château des Tenières, Vitry
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